West Coast Wildfires Alongside COVID-19 Pandemic Create Immense Hardship

Salem Cloth Project partners with Jake’s Diapers to support families displaced during West Coast Wildfires.

As the seasons shift from summer to fall and further into winter, darkness noticeably lingers longer each morning. This natural transition is a reminder of the cold days to come. 

But for many, this unexpected darkness was caused by a startling reality: west coast wildfires swept Oregon early September, causing devastation for thousands of people and an eerie hue that lingered for a week.

“On the first day of the fires, I accidentally slept in until 8am,” said Kaileigh Westermann, speaking about the early September wildfires in Oregon. “When I woke up, it was still dark outside as if it was 5 a.m. For a whole week, the house was completely dark and when you looked outside, it was like there was a sepia toned filter on everywhere. It was dark at 3:30pm and ash was visibly falling from the skies like snowflakes.” 

More than 920,000 acres have burned as of Oct. 9, 2020, according to the State of Oregon Fires and Hotspots dashboard. Salem, OR, is the second most populated city in the state (after Portland) with a population of about 180,000 people, and ⅓ of those living below the poverty line, Kaileigh said. The local area that burned was historically timber-based and much of it had been turned into recreational spaces; the fires ruined more than a dozen parks and campgrounds.

These areas were also home to many very low income people, she said, many without homeowners’ insurance or renters’ insurance. The county already struggled with a housing shortage before this incident, which destroyed more than 700 homes.

Kaileigh runs the Salem Cloth Project, a nonprofit that sells reusable cloth items in order to raise funds to purchase cloth diapers for people in need in the community. The mission is both to help the low income families in the area as well as reduce the negative environmental burden of disposable diapers. Salem Cloth Project is one of Jake’s Diapers Diaper Drop partners.

“The impact has been enormous,” Kaileigh said. “We lost over 1,000 structures in our county. We lost entire towns. We’ve lost at least 5 lives, including one of a 13 year-old boy. At one point, there were over half a million people in the state of Oregon evacuated from their homes (the population of Oregon is only about 4 million). 

“Even now, weeks later, we have over 700 people in our county still displaced. The fire became a threat to life and property so quickly that many people are traumatized. On the evening of Labor Day, people went to bed under no sort of evacuation orders whatsoever and were awoken in the middle of the night being told that they needed to leave immediately. These areas were fairly remote and attracted people that enjoyed that kind of lifestyle. These people will likely have to relocate to the city, at least temporarily, and therefore suffer emotional hardship as well as financial hardship. As we have seen with other natural disasters, this will likely result in trauma for all of those involved, both directly and indirectly.”

West Coast Wildfires: Tense, Scary

Stephanie, a board member for the Salem Cloth Project, worked in the Emergency Operations Center during the fires. Here’s her recount of the experience: 

“On Labor Day, I had my sister and her family over for a BBQ. As the day wore on, the sky gradually filled with smoke. I was confused as to what it was, but honestly didn’t think much of it. 

“When I woke up for work on Tuesday morning, I read about what had happened in the canyon. I saw that places that my loved ones lived had been issued evacuation orders. I read that some towns had been completely burnt to the ground. I was mortified. 

“I went to work, at our county public works office, and had a really difficult time focusing on my normal job. I felt I needed to be helping or doing something. While I was working that day, my sister and her family evacuated to my house. 

“When I got home, my tiny house was full of family and dogs – normally this would energize me, but I could tell how scared the kids were and the vibe was really tense. The next day was the same – tense, scary, not knowing what to expect, worried about all those who had been affected. 

“By the end of the day on Wednesday, my help in the Emergency Operations Center was requested. Beginning Thursday, I worked in the EOC for over two weeks. I saw first-hand the stress, the emotions, the desire to help everyone at once combined with a lack of resources. The first few days were 13+ hour days. While they were full of sad stories and uncertainty, they were also full of hope. It’s funny how an emergency really shows you what people can and are willing to do for each other. Everybody banded together and gave their all for their community. It was truly touching.”

Wildfires Drive Air, Water Concerns

The loss of the parks and campgrounds is concerning as the risk for erosion causing landslides could impact the water quality locally.

“The North Santiam Canyon, where the fires burned, is also the source of the City of Salem’s drinking water,” Kaileigh said. “The City of Salem has advanced technology to protect our drinking water, but there, it is something that is being very closely monitored.”

The areas surrounding the wildfires, including Salem and Portland, experienced extremely hazardous air quality for two weeks, Kaileigh said. The Air Quality Index was between 500-600, when healthy is considered to be 0-60. Many businesses closed for multiple days for health and safety reasons; on top of closures related to COVID, these situations have been very hard hitting for local small businesses. 

“During the time of fires when the air quality was at its worst, our unsheltered neighbors were also impacted,” Kaileigh said. “In Salem, there are thousands of unsheltered individuals, some of the most vulnerable of our population, that were stuck outdoors without protection from the hazardous air quality. Salem Cloth Project worked with a grassroots group called Free Fridge Salem to help collect and distribute masks and food to our unsheltered communities. But it was clear that these individuals were hit hard.” 

Though the impact of these wildfires is far from over, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread like wildfire – Kaileigh said she feels inspired by the community that has surrounded those in need locally.

“While the results of these fires have been truly devastating, it is also really inspiring to watch people and agencies in the community coming  together,” she said. “There is so much collaboration, overwhelming donations, and so much support out there. It is very touching and what I hope will be a shift in culture for our community. Almost every small business in town, despite their own hardships, have provided donations, space or support in some way.”

Thank you Petite Crown for supporting Jake’s National Cloth Network Initiative. Petite Crown was built based on one mom’s simple yet strong belief that no parents should struggle to afford necessities. When you purchase a product from Petite Crown, they donate one cloth diaper to a family in need through Jake’s Diapers.